“Are there any women here?!” bellowed John Cleese to a bearded rabble in one of the opening scenes of Monty Python’s 1979 satirical smash-hit The Life Of Brian. Set at the time of Christ, Cleese played a Jewish official overseeing the stoning of a man convicted of uttering the name of God and the crowd were actually women in fake beards, their gender prohibiting any involvement in the heretic’s punishment. Death by stoning seemed a ridiculous enough notion on the spoof film’s release over thirty years ago and yet is a method of execution still in use today.
Which is why the case of Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani in Tabriz, Iran, has caused such outrage. Although it’s difficult to present clear details on the case when Iranian journalism is heavily censored, the facts state that since her husband’s death some time before, Sakineh engaged in ‘illicit relationships’ with two men, was found guilty of such in 2006 and sentenced to 99 lashes of the whip. This punishment was carried out but when one of the men was later charged with the manslaughter of her husband, she was apparently tried for complicity in the murder, acquitted and sentenced to death by stoning for adultery at the behest of the judge, who had the power to overrule a jury verdict based on his own ‘knowledge’. He believed that if she slept with the man who killed her husband after his suspicious death, she must have been entangled before the murder. There are more details which remain unclear – the unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in her husband’s death, a retracted confession which she claims was made under duress and her ability to speak only Turkish and not the Persian language Farsi which put her at a disadvantage in a court of law. Perhaps the international interest in this case is a nuisance to Iranian authorities but if their media were uncensored and human rights policies were not so completely out-of-line with their inclusion in the United Nations, to put it blithely, they wouldn’t have this problem. As it stands, Iran reneged on an agreement with the U.N. to allow a Torture Inspector to visit the country in February this year and as yet, there have been no alternative measures to facilitate this crucial investigation. An informative post regarding Iran’s gender-aparthedist regime and its contravention of U.N. Human Rights on the Status of Women, complete with sample letters and contact details, can be found on Mission Free Iran.
Building pressure from public petitions and human rights watchdogs in the last few weeks led the Iranian justice system to issue a statement: “Stoning to death exists in our constitution and our judiciary cannot change its course just because of pressure and campaigns by the West.”
So while some reports suggest otherwise, the fate that awaits Ms. Ashtiani could be to hang but it’s just as likely that she may be buried up to the neck before men pelt her with stones until she dies. Another fifteen people also face a similarly brutal fate and the number awaiting sentencing is far higher.
The penalty for adultery under Article 83 of the penal code, called the Law of Hodoud is flogging (100 lashes of the whip) for unmarried male and female offenders. Married offenders may be punished by stoning regardless of their gender, but the method laid down for a man involves his burial up to his waist, and for a woman up to her neck (article 102)
Article 104 of the Law of Hodoud provides that the stones should not be so large that a person dies after being hit with two of them, nor so small as to be defined as pebbles, but must cause severe injury. This makes it clear that the purpose of stoning is to inflict grievous pain on the victim, in a process leading to his or her slow death.
[www.wfafi.org] Click for short .pdf of Laws Against Women in Iran.
The barbarity of stoning goes even further. Women are buried in such a way as to hinder any chance of escape but in such an event they are pursued and dragged back to their attackers unless caught by the police, in which case they may be executed by firing squad. However if a man manages to free himself, he is free to make his escape and no further action is taken.
Although debate rages over whether or not the Koran mentions stoning as punishment for adultery, the fact is that all of these heinous methods of retribution have no place in civilised Persian society. Unfortunately, as it is ruled by religious leaders knowledgable in Shi’a law, Iran’s judicial service in general is fundamentally prejudiced against the role of women, to the extent that female lives are worth half that of males. In the event of murder, legal action (the death penalty if found guilty) can only proceed if the victim’s family pay a fee known as ‘deyeh’ for the dismemberment or death of the assailant. Where the victim is a woman, the deyeh is half that of a man.
Even daily life is fraught with difficulty and discrimination for Iranian women. Very few are employed: a husband has the right to forbid his wife from working if it interferes with his standards of family life. Women are particularly poorly-represented in the medical profession which means many are denied basic diagnosis or treatment and even in the face of life-threatening danger husbands must first consent to operations or other procedures. A woman must also receive permission from her husband to apply for a passport while a man may divorce his wife at any time he pleases with no advance notice. The crime of inadequate clothing or ‘improper hijab’ in public places carries an official punishment of 78 lashes. Recently however, for this crime a young woman named Elnaz Babazadeh was apparently kidnapped, brutally raped and murdered by three members of the Basij militia under the public requirement of citizens to order ‘what is known to be virtuous’;
“…an Islamic obligation that requires everyone to invite people to do the right thing. It is used by the Taliban, the government of Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian Islamic regime to justify interference with various aspects of the lives of citizens; for example, the way they dress, their involvement in intimate relationships, and private gatherings they hold.”
Life in Iran was not always as cruel and untolerable for women. Allied with the West through tobacco trade since the 19th century, the country was troubled by revolution from 1905-1911 before regaining stability. In 1936 the Shah of Iran overruled all Islamic law and insisted that Shi’a fundamentalism and as a result, the traditional discrimination against women, be stamped out. The country progressed as a modern nation until the mass uprising of the revolution of 1979 when the royal family were exiled and Iran was decreed an Islamic Republic by way of referendum with Ayatollah Khomeini installed as Supreme Leader. Persepolis, the animated, Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, brought a darkly comic view of a young woman’s struggle to adapt to life under the new regime, when previously she had worn her hair loose, Nikes on her feet and enjoyed listening to Iron Maiden. Before long, her parents sent their headstrong daughter away to Europe to complete her education and to give Marjane the freedom she desperately longed for. This freedom is still denied to young Persian women over thirty years later.
Unfortunately the next woman to make a massive impact on the international community paid the ultimate price. 26 year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, accompanied by her music teacher and three friends, was making her way on foot to join post-election protests in June 2009 when she was shot in the chest by a Basij sniper. Spectators filmed her collapse and rapid death (link discretion advised) on the pavement as her teacher implored “Neda, don’t be afraid. Neda stay with me”. Iranian journalists were prohibited from reporting Neda’s death in the media but the graphic footage spread virally across the Internet through YouTube and Twitter as the world watched on to see the outcome of Ahdeminejad’s illegal re-election as president. As ‘neda’ is Persian for ‘voice’, her death has come to signify the gross discontention of Iranian people who struggle to survive whilst challenging the tyranny of their government. Despite the crushing punishment exacted by the authorities, many choose to protest and attempt to provide the rest of the world with clear information on their domestic situation by way of illicit blogs and radio broadcasts. Far from condoning the brutality of the above-mentioned methods sanctioned by Iran’s religious leaders, the people of the country want a democratic, fair government as the 2009 election results attest to. The Guardian has a list of those ‘Dead or Detained’ since the June 2009 protests and the details are horrifying. While it cites the names of over 1200 individuals however, reports suggest the number of anti-establishment demonstrators missing or imprisoned in the last year is as high as 4,000.
There is too much to write on the subject of Iran, the use of assault and rape as torture tactics, its blatant oppression of women and the difficulties it is faced with as other parts of the world enjoy the 21st Century. Far from confined to 2000 year-old texts or spoof satire, the barbaric, oppressive practices of flogging, hanging and stoning are still in use today. As enlightened and emancipated human beings free to say and act as we wish by virtue of the geographical lottery that governed our place of birth, it is all we can do to speak and act against the unacceptable crimes perpetrated upon our fellow people across the planet. It would be too easy to be discouraged by the fact that Iranian authorities have not acceded to the initial global outcry concerning Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani. Every possible means of action must be pursued, from emails, letters and petitions to Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and dinner-party conversations to ensure that this upsurge of awareness does not falter and wane. Instead of grumbling about banks or inept politicians, the fate of others is something to think about as we walk free with the wind rustling our hair and the sun warm on our bare skin.
EMAIL Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to demand Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani and the fifteen others on death row are spared the execution of death by stoning: firstname.lastname@example.org
WRITE to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs insisting the Irish government condemns the Human Rights abuses by Iran: email@example.com
WATCH the documentary on Neda Agha-Soltan’s death.